December 1, 2023

You’re the Boss Blog: Don’t Forget the Clients You Already Have


An insider’s guide to small-business marketing.

At Door Number 3, we spend a lot of time and energy focused on growth. Our 15-person shop has a full-time person dedicated to bringing in new business, leading the response to requests for proposals, getting out there networking, building and working databases. But we don’t always give as much attention to the customers we already have. As 2011 rolls to an end, I am reminding myself that it’s time to set in motion something I began last year.

Late in 2010, I did an in-depth review of the agency’s new business activity with our team. At that time, our new business guy, Tim, had been in the job for 12 months or so and was bringing in some nice, smaller accounts when we realized that something wasn’t quite right. While Tim is the point person for new business, it becomes a team effort once we start talking with a potential client. We were winning some, and we were losing some. Interestingly, a few staffers concentrated more on the losses than the wins, and those outside of the management team were concerned that we weren’t doing enough to bring in new business.

Given the recession and the fact that many businesses had slashed their advertising budgets, we decided to conduct an analysis and shared it with the team. It showed that our new business wins for the previous 12-month period were down from the previous two years, but respectable. It also showed that most of our longer-term clients were cutting back on what they had been spending with us.

As a result, our total sales — and our morale — were flat. In an agency, new business is not only embraced for the financial health it brings but also for the emotional lift. Creative and media-buying groups salivate over new challenges and use them as currency when talking to colleagues at other agencies.

Reviewing the analysis, I was reminded of our very first client 17 years ago, Kendle International, a contract research organization. I recalled that Candace Kendle, the company founder, made it part of her job to get on a plane and visit with every one of her pharmaceutical clients at least once a year, to get a pulse on how her company was performing. Inspired by that example, I decided to schedule a first-of-the-year check-in with each of our clients. Some of them I knew well, while I had had only occasional contact with others. Some were a little puzzled about the call — aren’t we current on our invoices? — but they all made time.

Setting up the meetings also caused some nervousness among our staffers. They are experienced, passionate and dedicated, and they sort of understood what I was doing but they found it unsettling. I reassured them that this wasn’t about a lack of confidence in them; it was, instead, an opportunity to listen to clients and figure out if there was anything we were missing.

Some of the visits were short and sweet. Others lasted much longer than I would have thought a client would have time for.

One began the meeting by saying this: “I appreciate your being here. And, if I was in your shoes, I would want my client to be perfectly candid with me, so I’m going to do that with you.” At that point, I readied myself to take the criticism and to dive into client-salvage mode — but what came next was a tribute to our account team.

Another client talked about how the politics within his organization had made it tough for him to manage his advertising program. The head of a tourism destination talked about how she had gotten so much response to an ad campaign that her biggest headache was dealing with the increased workload.

All in all, I did what every small-business owner should do when interacting with clients — I listened and took notes, which I later shared with our team. I uncovered a few areas that needed improvement, but, moreover, came away with a sense that we were making clients happy. Asking for feedback, being fully present, and listening makes people feel valued. This is nothing new, but it can get overlooked.

Around the time I was writing this post, I got a call from a fast-growing bank that was looking for a new agency. The bank had been referred to us by another client, who we were told “was singing our praises.” Which was interesting because I distinctly remember a very rough lunch I had had with that client a few years ago.

He had called me one day to say, “We need to talk.” From the tone of his voice, I knew it wasn’t going to be pretty. We met for lunch, and I said, “Lay it on me.” And he did. I listened, took notes, and promised him a response that day. He and I soon discovered that his marketing person had been throwing Door Number 3 under the bus for things she had failed to do.

But listening, acknowledging, giving him a response with solutions and not pointing fingers made a difference. He and I now go to lunch twice a year or so — an unexpected, but sweet, bonus of working on those existing relationships. Sometimes, they lead to new ones, too.

MP Mueller is the founder of Door Number 3, a boutique advertising agency in Austin, Tex. Follow Door Number 3 on Facebook.

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Media Decoder Blog: Netflix to Split Business in Two

In a letter posted on the Netflix Web site late Sunday night, the company’s chief executive, Reed Hastings, apologized for the way he handled recent changes in pricing and subscription services, and announced that the company would split into two businesses, with the DVD-by-mail service to be renamed Qwikster.

The pricing changes were announced this past summer and have since caused Netflix customers to walk away in droves. “I messed up,” Mr. Hastings said. “I owe everyone an explanation.”

He said the DVD-by-mail service, where the company began, will become the Qwikster brand with its own management team. The name Netflix will remain for movie streaming, according to the company’s statement, which was posted around 9 p.m. Pacific time. Qwikster and Netflix will now appear as separate lines on customers’ credit card bills.

The price of the company’s services will not change.

“We’re done with that!” Mr. Hastings said.

It was, after all, just that kind of change that prompted outrage among Netflix customers this summer, when the cost of a subscription that included unlimited online movie streaming plus one DVD-by-mail at a time went from $10 per month to $16 per month. That 60 percent increase has cost the company about 1 million of its 25 million customers, a greater exodus than they expected, company representatives have said.

But Mr. Hastings did not apologize for increasing subscription fees, or for asking customers to think about the two services separately. Instead, he blamed his own “arrogance based upon past success” for a failure to communicate in the face of a fast-changing business model.

“We realized we should have communicated better in July when we announced the price change,” said Steve Swasey, company spokesman. “That’s a mea culpa on that.”

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Case Study: A Decision to Hire a Sales Agent for Big Money

THE CHALLENGE To determine whether to hire a highly paid senior sales representative to expand the sale of Prometheus’s software to different industries.

THE BACKGROUND A scientist by training, Dr. Rozenblit understands the needs of researchers. They require a system that is powerful enough to handle millions of data points but that can be adapted as their studies change. Given the tight budgets of most academic institutions, the system cannot be expensive.

Prometheus developed original technology to enable scientists to connect their databases to the Web, allowing multiple users in various locations to access, manipulate and share large quantities of structured data simultaneously. Its software, called HTSQL, was embraced by scientists and technologists and has been Prometheus’s primary product.

Dr. Rozenblit said he believed HTSQL was a game-changing innovation that could also be used to manage data outside of the scientific community — most likely in the financial services and health care industries. Neither he nor his management team, however, knew how to market the software to other industries. “We knew the save in terms of time and money was dramatic, but it wasn’t a product yet,” Dr. Rozenblit said. “It’s not a product until you define a set of customers whose needs you meet and who want to pay you.”

To assess the value of its software, Prometheus had to engage potential clients to determine what problems HTSQL might solve for them. The management team debated who was best equipped to initiate those conversations.

THE OPTIONS Though Dr. Rozenblit and his staff were busy serving existing clients, he considered pursuing corporate accounts himself. After all, no one knew the product and its possibilities better. They also thought about reallocating several employees to approach organizations with large data management needs.

As a slightly more ambitious option, they considered hiring a junior sales representative to try to gauge the potential demand for HTSQL and to pursue new business. An employee at this level would be paid about $60,000 base salary, plus commission.

Finally, Dr. Rozenblit considered hiring a more expensive and experienced sales representative to cultivate relationships and help shape the way HTSQL would be deployed by future clients. A senior representative would command $150,000 to $200,000 in base salary, plus commission.

THE DECISION Dr. Rozenblit chose the last option. In November 2009, he hired Peter Harker, a senior salesman with nearly 20 years of experience selling technology, to lead the product introduction.

Dr. Rozenblit acknowledged that his decision was risky, in part because it forced him to cede some control over the trajectory of his business. Dr. Rozenblit said he wanted to stay connected to the process while removing himself from the daily demands of sales. He decided to include Mr. Harker in all executive team meetings so they could work together to determine how to approach new markets. “How do you let go of your baby?” he asked. “It would have been really hard for me five or seven years ago, but I’m a more experienced manager now.”

Dr. Rozenblit tried to assess his own limitations. Because his team could not define exactly how corporate clients would use HTSQL, he believed that Prometheus needed an experienced representative who had credibility with executive decision-makers and who could prompt a discussion about how HTSQL might help their businesses. “We were effective at selling ourselves to scientists,” he said, “but we had no contacts in the markets we thought were most promising. We needed someone who knew about enterprise software sales.”

Dr. Rozenblit said he believed Mr. Harker had the right blend of product and sales knowledge, and enough credibility to command attention from senior executives. He had a history of joining early-stage companies and helping identify new markets for cutting-edge technology. He had also been an entrepreneur himself, so he understood the scrappy culture and fiscal constraints of fledgling companies.

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